Voice of Sport

Eritrean riders to take lead in African team for Tour de France cycling

‘Their participation in the Tour will help accelerate the progression of African cycling,’ the Tour's director Christian Prudhomme has said


ERITREAN riders look set to join the first cycling team ever fronted by Africans to take part in the Tour de France.

They will join the South Africa-based MTN-Qhubeka outfit which hopes to make a breakthrough from talented riders in the continent so that they can be competitive in professional races worldwide.

The MTN-Qhubeka team will incorporate some top riders even from Europe but their vision is to give the most gifted in Africa a chance.

Compatriots

Eritrean climber Natnael Berhane, who won the Tour of Turkey in 2013, has joined the group and will race alongside compatriot Daniel Teklehaymanot.

Another Eritrean, 20-year-old Merhawi Kudus, is considered a promising prospect, along with South Africa’s Louis Meintjes, 22.

The ambitious African team will take part for the first time in the Tour de France when it starts in Utrecht next July, organisers announced Wednesday.

Gruelling

In all 22 teams, each with nine cyclists will compete in the 102nd edition of one of the most gruelling events in world sport. “Their participation in the Tour will help accelerate the progression of African cycling,” the Tour’s director Christian Prudhomme told  Reuters.

A rider, the Briton Chris Froome was born and raised in Kenya, perfected his riding in South Africa before going on to win the Tour de France in 2013.

Talent

There is plenty of riding talent in Kenya but the most organized riding federation in the continent are South Africa and North Africa countries as well as Eritrea and Rwanda. Rwanda runs one of the best competitions in the continent – Tour of Rwanda – a favourite for South Africans, Eritreans, North Africans and even Kenyans.

Foreign riders

Since becoming an internationally recognized even in 2009, the Tour of Rwanda has each time been won by a foreign rider before the first home victory by Valens Ndayisenga last December.

He was followed home by: 2. Jean-Bosco Nsengimana – (Rwanda), 3. Aron Debretsion – (Eritrea), 4. Joseph Biziyaremye – (Rwanda) and 5. Mraouni Salaeddine – (Morocco).

The Eritrean Daniel Teklehaymanot won in 2010.

The Tour of Rwanda winners since 2009:

2009: Adil Jelloul – (MAR)

2010: Daniel Teklehaymanot – (ERI)

2011: Kiel Reijnen – (USA)

2012: Darren Lill – (RSA)

2013: Dylan Girdlestone – (RSA)

2014: Valens Ndayisenga – (Rwa)

Experience

One of five wildcard teams chosen to race in this year’s event, MTN-Qhubeka already have experience of top level international cycling having competed in last year’s Vuelta a Espana.

But excitement is on how the Eritrean riders will blend into the professional realm and chart a path for other aspiring African talent.

Legendary

“These young Eritrean riders are the grandchildren of Coppi and Bartali,” said Tour director Prudhomme, referring to legendary Italian pair Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, and to the more than 50 years of Italian occupation of Eritrea that ended during World War II.

“The team has reinforced its youngsters with experienced riders to continue its progress.”

Line-up

MTN-Qhubeka have several promising young African cyclists in their line-up and recently reinforced their ranks by signing up Norwegian sprinter Edvald Boasson Hagen, one of the top names in the successful Sky team [which Chris Froome rides for].

Another sprinter in the ranks is the 2011 Milan-San Remo winner Matt Goss of Australia while others to join the team are Dutchman Theo Bos and American Tyler Farrar. But it is the home-grown African talent starting to emerge that is striking at Qhubeka, whose name means progress in Zulu.

Excellent

MTN-Qhubeka have an excellent project to develop cycling all the way to the African townships. Qhubeka’s rise has been meteoric since being created in 2007. In 2013 they became the first professional African team when joining the second division of cycling and being included on the Continental Tour.

Back then manager Doug Ryder had stated their aim was to participate in the Tour de France. Having an African team join the world’s most prestigious race is all part of a wider plan, according to Prudhomme.

Favourite

The opening up to the world (of the Tour) continues,” Prudhomme said, pointing out that one of the favourite’s for next year’s race will be Nairo Quintana of Colombia. The South American country is well-known for producing talented climbers but until the 1980s they were virtually anonymous.

As well as being invited to the Tour, Qhubeka will take part in June’s Criterium du Dauphine, which alongside the Tour of Switzerland is one of the two main pre-Tour warm-up events.